63. Fiction in Italy during the Renaissance
In this episode, Ryan takes a look at Fiction in the form of stories, tall tales and outright lies in Italy during the Renaissance. Discover the early tales that may have inspired Chaucer, meet the sneak whose name became a watchword for plotting, and learn how a litany of lies lay behind the success of Christopher Columbus.
The Italian Republic is located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, in Southern Europe. You’ll recognise it, for sure, it’s the one that looks like a boot.
It shares land borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia and the enclaved microstates of the Vatican City and San Marino and over 35% of the land is mountainous.
It also, unsurprisingly, has a lot of coastline, totalling 7,600 kilometres (4,722 miles), as well as lakes, volcanos, and an awful lot of vineyards.
At 301,000 square km (that’s 116,000 square miles) – Italy is about half the size of France, but it’s also the tenth largest country in the world by GDP.
A lot of this is down to the export of wine, -Italy is the world's largest wine producer, as well as one of the leading exporters of olive oil, fruits and vegetables.
Italy is the world's fifth-most visited country, partly because It has the largest number of World Heritage Sites, including Rome, Venice, Florence, Pompeii, The Amalfi Coast, The Dolomites and the leaning tower in Pisa.
Roman Catholic is the religion of choice, the Euro the currency, and the wolf the national animal.
The Italian flag is inspired by the French flag with vertical stripes of green, white and red, representing hope, faith and charity and the national anthem is called ‘Il Canto degli Italiani” and was created in 1847.
Fiction in Italy
Ancient Romans invented the first book. Called ‘the codex’, it was a collection of uniform-sized sheets of papyrus bound together along one edge, between two larger, stronger protective covers. Sounds familiar, right?
This transportable information quickly became the standard way to write and store information across the empire.
74% of Italians read books, they generate 1.6 billion euros a year for the book industry. And the best of the books are awarded the Premio Strega, the most prestigious literary award in Italy. In 2022 this was awarded to Mario Desiati's Spatriati – a coming-of-age story of friendship and a portrait of a generation of expatriates.
The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi in 1880, was first serialised in a children's newspaper. In this, the character of the Talking Cricket, later immortalised in the Disney film as Jimny Cricket, was originally killed by Pinocchio after advising him to stop running away and go back home to his father.. in Collodi’s story he says..
“At these last words, Pinocchio jumped up in a fury, took a hammer from the bench, and threw it with all his strength at the Talking Cricket. Perhaps he did not think he would strike it. But, sad to relate, my dear children, he did hit the Cricket, straight on its head. With a last weak “cri-cri-cri” the poor Cricket fell from the wall, dead!”
Which is nice.
Also, almost unbelievably, the 1970s tv detective show Starsky & Hutch inspired Italy’s best-ever-selling novel. Italian author Umberto Eco was so obsessed with watching Starksy & Hutch that he made the main character in his novel The Name of the Rose a crime-fighting monk. It is not recorded whether the monk wore enormous seventies cardigans.
While 13 of Shakespeare's plays are set in Italy, there’s no evidence to suggest he ever actually visited.
The earliest man appears first in Italy 850,000 years ago.Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens were hanging around there up to 50,000 years ago.
Then, sometime around 3000 BCE, possibly on a Tuesday afternoon, a mountain hunter died on the Austrian border, and was swallowed up by a glacier. His mummified corpse re-emerged in 1991 and is called Ötzi the Iceman.
In 2000BCE, the Terramare people arrive, hunters, farmers and a bronze making people, then a thousand years later, the Proto-Villanovan people arrive and they bring iron-work.
Also around this time (~800 BCE) tribes known as the Etruscans start to flourish.They accumulate wealth from mining ore and trading iron and copper and start to spread.
The Etruscans reach across the Italian peninsula and into the western Mediterranean where they collide with the Greeks, leading them to ally themselves with the Carthaginians.
According to legend, in 753BCE – A man called Romulus created Rome despite the rocky start of being raised by wolves.
200 years later, the Roman Republic is formed and the next 200 years is spent with them taking over much of Italy.
In the first 100 years of the new millennium, the Roman Empire is established, with Augustus the first Emperor of Rome, then Julius Caesar becomes dictator of Rome, only to be killed a year later. A gladiator named Spartacus then led a slave rebellion, after which Rome burned in the Great Fire of Rome.
More fiery ends occurred when Pompeii was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Meanwhile, back in Rome, the Colosseum in was completed and much bloodshed is had to the enjoyment of thousands.
For the next 200 years, Rome expanded into Europe reaching as far as the border of Scotland. Then in 395 - the Roman Empire split into The Western Roman Empire based in Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire based in Turkey.
By 476 the Roman Empire had fallen and the Ostrogoths take over, ruling until 751 when the Lombards take over in their turn. The Pope sought help from the Franks, who led a force into Italy led by Charlemagne. The Lombards are defeated.
Charlemagne was rewarded, becoming leader of the Holy Roman Empire.
This brings us to the 1200s – and at this point some powerful city-states have developed throughout Italy (places like Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples).
The 14th -16th centuries brings the renaissance, and in the 18th century, Napoleon conquered Northern Italy and declared it part of the French Empire.
Not for long though, by 1814, Napoleon was defeated and Italy was divided into several small states.
The 19th century sees the reunification of Italy, with Rome being made the capital. In 1915, Italy joins World War I on the side of the Allies, and is rewarded with the gift of new territories.
Then things take a fascist turn, in 1922 Benito Mussolini becomes dictator. In 1940, during World War II, Mussolini joins Hitler’s team and uses this as an excuse to invade Greece .
Not for long though. 3 years later, Mussolini loses power and Italy surrenders. A new government is formed, Rome is liberated, and Mussolini executed.
A new Republic is formed, along with a new constitution and by1950, the economy not only stabilizes but starts booming. Unfortunately in the 1970s there was an escalation in political violence, and by the 1990s, significant challenges were being faced as disenchanted voters faced paralysis in the wake of massive government debt, extensive corruption, and the influence of organised crime.
In steps media-magnate Silvio Berlusconi, offering to solve these problems, and is voted in as Prime Minister. Over the next decade he steps down, regains power, loses power, becomes PM again, and finally resigns in 2011. What fun.
Turmoil follows with a succession of so many new leaders that they were averaging one new government every year – totalling 69 new leaders since the end of WW2.
Today, Italy has a right-wing coalition government with a group of fascists at its core. Their first female prime minister Giorgia Meloni has a right-wing ideology which was best described in a speech she gave in 2021, which said:
"Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology... no to Islamist violence, yes to secure borders, no to mass migration... no to big international finance... no to the bureaucrats of Brussels”
So, there we are.
The Renaissance.. What was it? Who was it? Why was it?
After the fall of ancient Rome, Europe entered a period of time called ‘the Middle Ages’ aka ‘the Dark Ages’, this was a period of war, famine and disease. By some accounts few notable advances were made in science and art during this time until a cultural movement started called Humanism.
Starting in the 14th century, humanism upheld the idea that man was the centre of his own universe and achievements in education, arts, literature, and sciences should be embraced.
In 1450, the invention of the printing press allowed for these ideas to spread quickly across Europe. The Italian city of Florence was, at this time, run by wealthy citizens like the powerful Medici family – who used their resources to support artists
This support began an intellectual and artistic revolution which expanded out to other cities, until eventually most of Europe followed too.
The Renaissance, as it became to be known, was a time where some of the most famous and ground-breaking intellectuals, artists, scientists and writers flourished.People like, Da Vinci, Erasmus, Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, Botticelli and numerous other thinkers and artists so famous they only need one name.
Art incorporated science to present realistic and natural imagery. Architects used mathematics to engineer immense buildings with expansive domes and scientific discoveries led to major shifts in thinking.
Da Vinci painted The Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, Michelangelo carved the Statue of David and the St Peter’s Basilica was built in the Vatican City.
The telescope, the microscope and eyeglasses were invented and gravity was described.
Meanwhile, Europeans took to the seas to learn more about the world around them, kick-starting the Age of Discovery.
More people learned to read, write and interpret ideas, which led to a closer examination of religion – with questions raised about the role of the church and the teachings of the Bible.
By 1600, numerous wars had caused instability and economic decline across Europe, which meant less funding for the arts, so the renaissance ground to a halt.
But the impact of those 300 years of creative thought changed the way people understood and interpreted the world around them forever, the effects of which are still being felt today
Italian Renaissance fiction – the Decameron
In 1313, in a small Italian town called Certaldo, about 35 km southwest of Florence lived a merchant called Boccaccino di Chellino
He and unknown woman welcomed the delivery of a baby boy whom they called Giovanni Boccaccio. In 1326, Boccaccio’s father was appointed the head of a bank in Naples and so the family uprooted and moved cities.
Boccaccio became an apprentice there at the bank but disliked the job so much that he persuaded his father to let him study law instead, which he did, for six years.
He filled this time hob-nobbing with Neapolitan nobility where he fell in love with daughter of the King. She was, much to his heartbreak, married.
Dealing with heartbreak, he grew tired of law, and in the late 1330s, he returned to Florence with his father. Things got worse when his father became bankrupt, and then his fortunes turned even worse as a plague swept through Florence resulting in the death of his mother, followed a year later by the death of his father.
Boccaccio turned his attention to writing poetry and prose. Among his creations was a collection of fictional tales framed by an overall story of 10 young people who fled from plague-stricken Florence to a villa in a nearby town.
For ten days, each of the group of ten tells a tale, leaving a complete work of 100 stories, called, The Decameron (from the Greek meaning ‘ten days’).
Today, the work is today regarded as a masterpiece of classical Italian prose
Boccaccio borrowed many of the stories from folklore and myth, but the overall work was innovative and influenced many writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer who a few decades later wrote The Canterbury Tales, a book which also collects a series of unconnected tales under one overarching narrative.
Romantic in tone, The Decameron’s tales cover various different themes, including vice, fortune, will, wit, gaiety, as well as lies and deceit, including:
Peronella – the second tale of the seventh day
Peronella was a beautiful and charming woman, who lived with her poor husband in Naples. Every day, her husband goes off to find work and she stays home to spin wool.
Pretty soon, she catches the eye of a young gentleman called Giannello and the pair figure out that once her husband leaves for the day, they will have plenty of time to fool around before he returns.
And so it goes, except on one day, when her husband returns early and finds the door to the house locked.
“What a virtuous wife,” he thinks, “she's locked the door behind me to keep the naughty men out!”
Hearing her husband at the door, Peronella quickly hides her lover in an empty wine barrel, before opening the door and shouting at her husband.
“Why aren’t you at work?” she says, “How could I have married such a lazy person? How are we supposed to put food on the table?”
‘Calm down,’ he tells her, ‘it’s a holiday day today so there's no work to do - but don’t worry about money, because - guess what? I’ve found someone who is willing to buy that old wine barrel of ours!’
At this, Peronella panics, but she does some quick thinking and tells her husband that she's already sold the barrel - and the buyer is inside it right now inspecting the quality. What a coincidence!
Super pleased, the husband insists on meeting the buyer inside the barrel however. Inside, Giannello who has overheard this conversation, decides to play along - greeting the husband warmly and telling him that ‘this barrel is good, but it needs a bit of a clean before I’m willing to buy it’
So, eager for the sale, the husband and the lover swap places, with the husband lowering himself inside the barrel to start scraping away any leftover wine.
While he’s doing that, Peronella leans over the edge of the barrel and starts shouting instructions at her husband.. “Clean it better! You missed a bit!.” and so on
All the time she’s yelling at him, with the husband out of sight, Giannello steps up behind Peronella, lifts her skirt, and has sex with her, “like a wild stallion with a mare.”
Having finished cleaning the barrel, the husband clambers out and Giannello leaves the house happily, having both had his way with Peronella and now carting a nice clean barrel to boot.
And that is the end of the story. Well, nobody said they all had to have a moral eh?
Elena, the seventh story of the eighth day
Elena, a young widow of Florence, takes a new gentleman as her lover. However, because she's very beautiful (and knows it), another gentleman named Rinieri falls in love with her.
Rinieri's a very clever fellow having just returned from studying in Paris, but Elena wants nothing to do with him. That said, she can't resist flirting and stringing him along.
Elena’s lover is less keen on her interacting with Rinieri and he gets jealous so, to prove her devotion, Elena decides to play a trick on Rinieri.
She tells him to come to her after Christmas so they can hook up. Rinieri, delighted, arrives arrives at the appointed time. Then Elena's maidservant promptly locks him in the courtyard and tells him to wait there until Elena appears.
Elena, in the warm house with her lover, shows him the freezing Rinieri - mocking this apparently smart man for being such a fool! She even speaks with Rinieri, telling him that her brother has paid a surprise visit to the house and that she can't bring him inside until he leaves.
Standing in the wintery night, Rinieri nearly freezes to death waiting for Elena to return. Hours pass and eventually he realises that he has been fooled.
His love for Elena turns into hatred.
He spends the next several months recovering from his near-death experience and plots his revenge.
As it happens, over those months, Elena's lover leaves her for a younger woman - and she misses him greatly. So desperate is she to get back with him that she follows her maidservants’ advice to consult with Rinieri, to find a magical spell which will make the lover return.
The maidservant is sent to ask Rinieri for help and sensing an opportunity for revenge, he agrees.
Rinieri advises Elena that to get her lover back, she must follow his instructions precisely. He draws a picture of the lover and tells Elena that she must take it to a flowing stream by herself in the middle of the night, where she must take off all her clothes and dip herself into the water seven times. Once she has done this, while naked, she must climb something very high and recite some magical words.
So, Elena does exactly this, performing the ritual and climbing a ladder naked to the top of an observation tower.
Rinieri takes the opportunity to remove the ladder leaving Elena stuck at the top of the tower completely naked.
Elena realizes too late that she's been trapped and no-one can hear her cries for help through the night.
The next day, Rinieri returns to the tower and gloats of his revenge. Elena pleads with him as she has now got terrible sunburn, bites from insects, and is dying of thirst.
Remembering his treatment in the frozen courtyard, Rinieri has no pity, and spends the entire day taunting her from the ground, watching her suffer and burn - suggesting that if she's so anxious to get off the roof, she should just jump off and break her neck.
Eventually though he agrees to bring her some clothes and the ladder so that she can climb back down - but in reality, he goes off for lunch and has a long nap.
Finally, when Elena is on the brink of death, Rinieri takes her clothes to the maidservant and tells her where Elena can be found, but not before warning her that he’d have his revenge on the maid too.
And so, the maidservant hurries to the tower, and with the help of a pig farmer enables Elena to get down from the tower. Unfortunately for the maid, in helping her mistress, she slips on the ladder and snaps her thighbone, completing Rinieri’s revenge.
Elena lives through the ordeal (as does the maidservant), and vows to herself never to play tricks on anyone else or mess around with men.
Which is a bit more satisfying than cleaning a barrel out for your wife’s lover whilst he makes love to her right under your nose, isn’t it?
Another man with a flair for fiction was born in Florence in 1469, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli grew up during a period of turmoil. The powerful families who ran Italian city-states were rising and falling abruptly as popes and the kings of France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire waged wars for influence across the region.
Political-military alliances were changing continuously, with leaders switching sides without warning, leaving governments to fluctuate in and out of power.
During all of this upheaval, Machiavelli, who had studied Latin and Greek, got a job writing official government documents, before becoming a diplomat.
He travelled around doing diplomat things - even visiting the royal courts in France and Spain, but by the early 16th century, Machiavelli had grown tired of diplomacy – he decided that he wanted to build a militia instead.
By 1506, he had recruited and armed four hundred farmers whom he led to victory on an attack on the city of Pisa.
His success was short-lived though. Pisa was recaptured just 3 years later in 1512. Machiavelli was removed from office, accused of conspiracy, imprisoned, and tortured by means of "the rope", whereby his wrists were bound behind his back, a hoist was attached, and he was lifted such that his arms had to bear his entire bodyweight. Despite the agony of suffering dislocated shoulders, Machiavelli denied any involvement in the attack and was released just three weeks later.
Retiring from politics, he settled on a farm, and while recovering from his injuries, devoted himself to study, writing political treatises, joining intellectual groups, and writing several successful plays.
During this time that Machiavelli wrote perhaps his most famous work: De Principatibus (Of Principalities) - later published in 1532 as.. Il Principe.. or The Prince.
This how-to guide for anyone seeking power stated that only by immoral means could you help achieve greatness. Basically, he wrote that anyone looking to establish a successful kingdom or a republic would be required to engage in treachery and deception.
For its time, this was controversial, because it challenged traditional concepts of honour and morality in favour of promoting apparently evil behaviour which would help tyrants maintain their power.
The Prince advised that successful rulers should appear one way - yet act another..
“Everyone admits how praiseworthy it is in a prince to keep his word, and to behave with integrity rather than cunning. Nevertheless, those princes who have done great things have considered keeping their word of little account and have known how to beguile men’s minds by shrewdness and cunning.”
Adding, “Your word is not your bond: it’s a choice you make” and “A wise lord cannot, nor ought he to, keep his promises when such observance would place him at a disadvantage and when the reasons for which he gave his word no longer exist.”
To be clear, he doesn’t go so far as to say it’s right to make a promise knowing you have no intention of keeping it, rather that, if you make a promise you intended to keep and later renege on it – well, that’s just dealing with changing circumstances. Pragmatic.
And all this lying, he suggests, is easier than you think – because “Men are so simple, and so subject to prone to be won over by necessities, that a deceiver will always find someone who is willing to be deceived.”
And even if discovered, “The worst that can happen” he says “is that the man to whom you have made a false promise is angry.”
So you don’t actually have to be good, just look like it. Although you must be mindful that there can come a point when people stop believing in the fantasy they’ve created about you - because that’s when you’ll be dethroned.
“A prince ought to take care that everyone sees and hears him as a paragon of mercy, loyalty, humanity, integrity, and scrupulousness”
…without actually having to actually be any of those things in reality.
In Genoa in Italy sometime between 1435 and 1451, poor fabric tanners Domenico Colombo and Susanna Fontanarossa had a baby boy who they called Christopher.
Christopher Colombo – you may have heard of him as Columbus.
At the time, Genoa was an independent Republic in North-western Italy, with lots of trading connections to many foreign cities. So, young Christopher spent a lot of time hanging out at the docks, studying ships, making maps and learning to sail.
Eventually he joined several trading voyages until in 1476, pirates attacked a ship he was working on, and he was cast adrift. Managing to float to the Portuguese shore, he made his way to Lisbon where he lived for many years.
There he met a Portuguese noblewoman called Dona Filipa Moniz Perestrelo, whom he married in 1478 – making him a Portuguese citizen.
During this time, Christopher Columbus’ interest in geography, philosophy, theology, and history grew.
He took especial interest in mapping and by 1480, he had established a theory that there was an alternative route to the East Indies. At the time, traders from Europe had to sail south along the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope to get to the East, which was dangerous, largely because hostile armies had blocked them.
Columbus’ idea was to reach Asia by crossing the Atlantic ocean to the West.
He formalised a proposal for an exploratory mission, but needing financing, he presented his plans to John II of Portugal.
John rejected it immediately
Undeterred, Columbus approached wealthy families in Venice, Genoa, France, and even King Henry VII of England.
They all rejected his idea too.
In January 1492, he approached Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II of Spain.
They rejected him.
But Columbus was nothing if not persistent. He persuaded Isabella and Ferdinand to reconsider - finally agreeing to finance an exploratory voyage.
Thus Columbus and 90 men commenced their journey on 3 August 1492 in three ships, la Santa Clara (nicknamed the Niña after its owner, Juan Nino), la Pinta (meaning “the painted one” or “prostitute”), and la Santa Gallega (known as Santa Maria after Maria Galante - the name of a prostitute).
They headed west, and after ten weeks, they made a huge discovery – it wasn’t a trade route to India - but a ‘new world’ - the Americas!
Now that’s the headline of the story of Columbus. But there are a few stories of duplicity that got him there.
Columbus cooks the books
Columbus departed Spain towards the Canary Islands "half an hour before sunrise" on 3 August 1492.
By early October the voyage was weeks overdue for seeing land and he wrote briefly in his journal that the mood on board was starting to change for the worse.
The crew were nervous that they were wandering further from the safety of home, with no land to be found. Rumours of mutiny circulated.
So, Columbus began writing an additional captain’s log - nearly identical to his real one - but with purposely smaller distances noted than the ship had actually travelled. This fake log was then circulated among Columbus’ crew and convinced them that they were much closer to home than they were, reassuring them that if they had to turn around, they would have no problem getting home safely.
The fake log ruse worked for a while, but as time passed and no land was sighted, the crew became restless again.
To appease them, Columbus lied again – making up signs of land, pointing out sightings of birds, whales, and floating vegetation as all ‘clear signs’ that land must be close.
The days without land continued, and these lies were no longer enough.
Eventually, on October 11th, Columbus had no choice but to tell his crew that if they did not spot land in two days, they would turn around.
The very next day, land was sighted, and his crew never discovered his deceptions.
Lucky, lucky Columbus.
Prior to Columbus setting sail, the Queen of Spain made a pledge that the sailor who made the first sighting of land in the New World would receive 10,000 maravedis (about $3,000 today) every year for the rest of their life.
At that time, the sailors were being paid about 1000 maravedis a month, so just less than a year’s salary – so we’re talking about retirement money here.
And so it was, that on October 12th, a sailor called Juan Rodríguez Bermejo, also known as Rodrigo de Triana, was on watch in the crow’s nest. At 2am, his attention was drawn to moonlight shining on white sands, and realising that land was near - he cried out ‘Tierra, tierra!’ (Land! Land!).
Rodrigo had spotted a small island in the Lucayas archipelago (known today as the Bahamas), in the Caribbean Sea.
Rodrigo was understandably keen to claim his prize, but Columbus refused, claiming to have seen the same lights a day earlier.
According to his logbook, at ten o’clock on the previous night, Columbus was on the sterncastle (at the back of the boat) when he had seen a light.
It wasn’t clear, so he couldn’t confirm it was land, but he called Pero Gutierrez, his butler, and told him about the light and asked him to look. The butler did, and said that he saw it too.
Columbus then asked the ship’s accountant, Rodrigo Sanchez of Segovia to take a look as well, but the accountant couldn’t see anything – because, according to Columbus, he was not in the right position to see it. Yeah, right.
In any event, Columbus wrote in his book that he saw a light, "like a little wax candle rising and falling, but it was so indistinct that I could not dare to affirm it as land."
With this, Columbus used Rodrigo de Triana’s sighting of land, not as first sight, but as confirmation of his own.
So guess who won the big land-sighting prize? When he returned to Spain, Columbus claimed the reward as his own. Of course.
And as for Rodrigo de Triana… Well, after returning to Spain, he then sailed to Africa, where he committed suicide two years later.
But Columbus’s deceptions don’t end there.
On the 30 June 1503, Columbus was in Jamaica when he beached two ships and was stranded.
The indigenous people of the island welcomed him and his crew, going out of their way to feed them in exchange for trade, but after six months, Columbus ran into a problem – he was running out of things to trade, and the indigenous chief stopped supplying them.
In a bind, Columbus stumbled upon an idea.
On board his ship he had an almanac of astronomical tables and in these he noticed that the date and time of an upcoming lunar eclipse was just a week away.
Columbus had a cunning plan.
He requested a meeting with the tribal leader and told him that his God was angry with the local people's treatment of his men. He told him that God was so angry in fact, that he would provide a sign of his displeasure by making the full moon appear "inflamed with wrath."
On schedule, the eclipse happened, darkening the moon and turning it blood red.
The indigenous people were both impressed and terrified. Well, you would be.
The son of Columbus, Ferdinand, wrote that the people “with great howling and lamentation, came running from every direction to the ships, laden with provisions, praying the Admiral to intercede by all means with God on their behalf; that he might not visit his wrath upon them.”
Hearing their pleas, Columbus made a great show of going into his cabin to pray on it, but actually just sat at his desk timing the eclipse with an hourglass.
After 48 minutes, shortly before the totality ended, he emerged from his cabin and told the frightened tribe that they were going to be forgiven.
And sure enough the Moon started to reappear from the shadow of the Earth.
As it returned to normal, he told them that God had pardoned them
Relieved, the islanders continued to offer Columbus and his men provisions – this time, free of charge!
Oh Columbus, you scamp.
And who is this Columbus anyway?
The mysteries and truth of Columbus continue to be debated today, particularly as regards the origins of the man.
The established and largely accepted legend is that he is Italian, but, there are many questions about the truth behind who Columbus really was.
Washington Irving, the first historian to write a detailed biography of Columbus, and who had access to an entire archive of information on the man, reported that there was ‘much controversy about the birthplace of Columbus. It has formed a point of zealous controversy, which is not yet satisfactorily settled.’
And that remains true today, because we still don’t have definitive proof of where he came from. Despite there being legal documents which apparently demonstrate his Genoese origin, there are as many other reputable reports which conclude that ‘Christopher Columbus’ (if that was his real name) might have come from somewhere other than Italy.
After his father’s death, Columbus’s son claimed they were originally from a noble family - one reduced in wealth due to various wars.
Elsewhere there are claims from countries across Europe that Columbus was one of their own. Some say he was Spanish because he was fluent in the Castilian language, wrote his diaries and logbooks in Castilian, signed his name in Spanish as ‘Cristóbal Colón’, and spend much of his life serving Spanish monarchs. Others suggest he was Portuguese, pointing to the many years he spent living in Lisbon, the fact he married a Portuguese noblewoman, the fact that he always referred to Portugal as “his homeland”, and that he had several ties with the Portuguese crown.
There is even one argument which claims he was the illegitimate son of a Portuguese nobleman who changed his name to “Culon” after a naval battle.
Other, (less convincing) theories about Columbus’ origins have been proposed, claiming that Columbus was by turns a Byzantine Greek nobleman, a Sardinian nobleman, a Norwegian, a Scot or even that he was the son of King Władysław III of Poland.
Historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, points out however that, “The Columbuses concocted by historical fantasists are agenda-driven creations, usually inspired by a desire to arrogate a supposed or confected hero to the cause of a particular nation or historic community – or, more often than not, to some immigrant group striving to establish a special place of esteem in the United States.”
So the origins of Columbus remain in doubt, but in 2021, an international team of scientists gathered at the University in Granada to try to the answer the question of Columbus’ origins.
They announced a study which will analyse DNA collected from Columbus’ remains using the most advanced genetic technology available. According to a statement from the researchers, “this is the most ambitious scientific research yet on Columbus’ origins and compiles the work developed by the different theses that have emerged so far and possible genetic information to contrast.”
And the good news is that the results of their analysis will be made public in October 2022!
Ok, yes, you’re right, that date has already passed, but watch this space, perhaps the results, and the truth of the origins of Christopher Columbus, might be available soon.